You are on page 1of 26

Anatomy of the Inner Ear

Auditory transduction takes place
in the inner ear

Transduction refers to the

transformation of energy from one
form to another. In the case of the ear,
acoustic (mechanical) energy is
transformed to electrochemical energy

The Inner Ear


The inner ear consists of a membranous “labyrinth” encased in an osseous


Parts of the inner ear

From Gelfand (1998)

The vestibule and semicircular canals are concerned with vestibular function
(balance); the cochlea is concerned with hearing. The cochlea is a coiled tube.
Notice that the oval window and round window open into the vestibule, at the
base of the cochlea.

The cochlea

The cochlear coil extends “up” from its base. It is coiled around the modiolus.

The cochlea uncoiled

From Pickles (1992)

Reissner’s membrane and the basilar membrane divide the

the cochlea longitudinally into three scalae. Movement of the the basilar
membrane by pressure changes induced by stapes footplate motion at the oval
window is a critical step in the transduction process

Cross-section of the cochlear

If you cut the cochlear tube cross sectionally, you’d see something like this.
Scala vestibuli on top, scala tympani on the bottom. Scala media is a triangular
duct in the middle. The process of transduction occurs in the structures within
scala media, sitting on the basilar membrane -- these structures comprise the
organ of Corti. The side of the duct where the nerve fibers exit (left in this
picture) is the “inner” or “modiolar” side of the duct. The opposite side is the
“outer” side.

the organ of Corti

From Gelfand (1998)

Notice that scala media is more or less triangluar, formed by Reissner’s

mebrane, basilar membrane and the structure called the stria vascularis.
The fluid that fills scala tympani and scala vestibuli is called perilymph; the
fluid that fills scala media is called endolymph.
The organ of Corti rests on the basilar membrane within scala media.

A closer look at the organ of

From Pickles (1992)

Two types of cells in the organ of Corti are support cells and hair cells. The
hair cells are the “receptor” cells-- the ones that transduce sound. Support cells
such as the Deiter’s cells support hair cells. The tops of the hair cells and pillar
cells form the reticular lamina, which isolates the hair cells’ stereocilia from
their cell bodies. The tectorial membrane is loosely coupled to the reticular
There are 4 rows of hair cells, one on the inner (modiolar) side of the tunnel
formed by the pillar cells-- these are the inner hair cells; and 3 one the outer
side of the Tunnel of Corti, these are the outer hair cells. Notice that the
Deiter’s cells support the Outer hair cells at their base, but that the outer hair
cell walls are surrounded by fluid. The inner hair cell is surrounded by support

Reticular lamina

From Gelfand (1998), Lim (1986)

The reticular lamina is a solid surface at the tops of the hair cells, so the tops
of the hair cells are in endolymph and the bottom of the hair cells are in

Deiter’s cells

From Gelfand (1998)

Deiter’s cell processes “fill in the gaps” between the tops of the outer hair cells
to form the reticular lamina.

Arrangement of hair cells

From Yost (1993), Courtesy of Dr. Ivan Hunter-Duvar, Hosptial for Sick Children, Toronto

Outer hair cells, supported by Deiter’s cells, form “columns” between the
basilar membrane and the reticular lamina.


From Gelfand (1998)

Stereocilia on inner (left) and outer (right) hair cells. Stereocilia are arranged
in curved or v-shaped rows that face toward the modiolus.

Arrangement of stereocilia

From Schneider et al. (2002)

Each row of stereocilia is taller than the next. The tip of each stereocilium is
linked to the side of the stereocilium behind it by a tip link.

Another view...

From Gelfand (1998)

Innervation of the organ of Corti

Nerve fibers

Nerve fibers exit the organ of Corti on the modiolar side.

Neuron review

From Gelfand (1998)

In the auditory nerve, the dendrites contact the hair cells. The cell bodies form
what is called the spiral ganglion, and the axons for the auditory nerve that
connects the ear to the brainstem. The “contact” points between the dendrites
and the hair cells or between the axons of one neuron and the dendrites of
anbother are called synapses. Synaposes have specialized structures and
substances that allow communication between recpetors and neurons or
between neurons.

Action potentials

From Kandel et al. (1991)

When a neuron’s intracellular electrical potential is changed enough by release

of neurotransmitter at a synapse (or in some other way), an abrupt change in
electrical potential, an “action potential”, occurs. Action potentials are
transmitted along the axon to another synapse, where neurotransmitter is
released and an action potential may be generated in the neuron on the other
side of the synapse (postsynaptic neuron).

The spiral ganglion

From Pickles (1992)

The cell bodies of the neurons that form the auditory nerve are located within
the cochlear modiolus. The collection of cell bodies is called the spiral

Pattern of afferent innervation

From Gelfand (1998)

Different types of nerve fibers innervate IHCs and OHCs. Type I fibers
innervate IHCs; Type II neuorns innervate OHCs.

Pattern of afferent innervation

From Pickles (1992)

Nearly all of the nerve fibers that carry messages from the ear to the brain
innervate inner hair cells. Notice that the many nerve fibers that contact one
inner hair cell do not branch to other inner hair cells. Each IHC has its own
“private” set of fibers. The Type II nerve fibers innervate many OHCs. and the
OHCs they innervate are basal to the point at which the nerve fiber enters the

But there are
among the
an inner hair

From Gelfand (1998)

Thin fibers attach toward modiolar side, thick fibers toward outer side of IHC.

Pattern of efferent innervation

From Gelfaqnd (1998)

Neurons from the brainstem also contact hair cells. These neurons carry
information from the brain to the ear and are called efferent neurons. The vast
majority of efferents innervate OHCs, and the contacts on OHCs differ from
those on IHCs. Efferents form large calyx-shaped contacts on the OHC cell
body; efferents form small bouton-like contacts on the afferent nerve fibers
that contact IHCs.

Sources of efferent cochlear

From Gelfand (1998)

The nuclei shown here are in a part of the brainstem called the superior olivary
complex. Fibers from both sides of the brain innervate both IHCs and OHCs,
but the fibers innervating the two types of HC originate in different places.
One recent study suggests that the SOC receives input from auditory cortex--
so fairly high level processing. The fiber tract containing the efferent fibers is
known as the olivocochlear bundle (OCB). The tract from the same side of the
brain is called the uncrossed OCB and the tract from the opposite side of the
brain is called the crossed OCB.

• The cochlea contains an array of highly
specialized cells arranged in a highly
specialized manner.
• There are structural differences between
IHCs and OHCs that suggest that they differ
in function
• The cochlea not only sends a message to the
brain, but it may also receive messages
from the brain via efferent innervation.

Text sources
• Gelfand, S.A. (1998) Hearing: An introduction to
psychological and physiological acoustics. New York:
Marcel Dekker.
• Kandel, E.R., Schwartz, J.H., & Jessell, T.M. (1991)
Principles of neural science. Norwalk CT: Appleton &
• Pickles, J.O. (1988) An introduction to the physiology of
hearing. Berkeley: Academic Press.
• Schneider, M.E., Belyantseva, I.A., Azevedo, R.B. &
Kachar, B. (2002) Structural cell biology: Rapid renewal
of auditory hair bundles. Nature, 418:837-838.
• Yost, W.A. (1994) Fundamentals of hearing: an
introduction. San Diego: Academic Press.